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Isaiah’s Servant Song: Suffering and Glory (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

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“O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His Glory?” (Luke 24:25, 26). So said the as yet unrecognized stranger to the two whom he joined on the road to Emmaus.

Once it is seen to be a prophecy of the Christ, there is no passage in the Old Testament that speaks more clearly beforehand of the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow, than the passage in Isaiah about the suffering Servant of Jehovah.

Let us read the whole song, for in the original it is poetry rather than prose; and let us note that it begins at Isaiah 52:13 and runs to the end of chapter 53. We shall refer to the Revised Version and the R.V. margin as well as the Authorised Version. Let us note that the song falls into five stanzas of three verses each, and that the opening words of each section indicate the particular point or aspect emphasised in that section.

(i) 52:13-15. Behold, My servant shall deal prudently (or prosper). This is the dominant thought not only of the opening section, but also of the whole song. The way in which God’s servant acts is to be a complete mystery to those who see his suffering, but it will be vindicated as prudent by the result to which it leads. For after his suffering, “He shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.”

Christians may see in this threefold exaltation something which has been fulfilled in our Lord’s (1) resurrection, (2) ascension, and (3) enthronement at God’s right hand. Just as many men were astonished at his humiliation, so shall many nations be startled by his exaltation. Thus will Gentiles, whose minds were not prepared beforehand like those of the Jews, acknowledge him as Lord. This Gospel of Jehovah’s exalted servant will win response from the ends of the earth.

Unbelief

(ii) 53:1-3. Who hath believed that which we have heard? This section dwells on the unbelief and indifference of those who saw his appearing in humility to suffer. The change of tense to the past suggests that these words are a prophecy of the future repentance of the Jewish people. When their eyes are opened, they will confess that the prophecy of the suffering that was to precede Messiah’s glory was read in their synagogue, but they did not believe it. They will confess that although the Messiah grew up in their midst he was not welcomed, but disregarded, despised and rejected.

(iii) 53:4-6. Surely He hath borne our griefs. This is the further confession by the people of the meaning of the sufferings of God’s servant. They acknowledge that their previous judgement about him was mistaken. True, he did suffer for sins, and bear their divinely-ordained penalty and curse; but it was not for his own sins that he thus suffered. It was all for them, or, as they say, and as we may say, too, all for us. The words “our”, “we” and “us” keep on coming in these three verses. For his suffering was substitutionary, for our sake, and in our stead. We committed the sins. He took the chastisement. We enjoy the healing and the peace. Such are the amazing discovery and experience of the redeemed.

Humility

(iv) 53:7-9. He was oppressed, yet He humbled Himself. Here the prophet, or Jehovah himself again speaks; and speaks of the amazing self-humiliation of God’s servant. Though he was entirely innocent, he did not protest or complain at suffering and death. None of his generation considered why he was thus being cut off. Yet, willingly and in silence, in utter submission to God’s will and way, he bore in his own person the smiting due to God’s people because of their transgressions. So he humbled himself, and became obedient even unto sharing the kind of death due to the wicked.

(v) 53:10-12. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him. Jehovah himself had purposed it all. This is the first and final explanation. Behind all that happened to his servant was God’s holy will for that was to precede Messiah’s the redemption of his people. So God himself ordered the crowning tragedy of human history. He allowed his Servant to bear the sin of many, to pour out his soul unto death as a sin-offering.

Nor was it in vain. For God’s purpose is being successfully achieved because of what the Servant did, namely, the justification of many, and the birth of a seed whom the risen Servant will confess to be his people. For nothing less is here anticipated than the resurrection and final triumph of God’s Servant, in the light of which his sufferings will be seen to have been all worthwhile. So shall he be satisfied, and all the good pleasure of God fully accomplished.

How wonderful that, by entering into his glory through suffering, God’s Servant, and God’s Christ, accomplished the purpose of God for our redemption, and made it possible for us sinners also to be brought from guilt, through grace, to glory.

This article was first published in the Australian Church Record on 20 March 1958. In this series we hear reflections on Scripture from the Rev. Alan M Stibbs.

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